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Online Learning Resources for Special Needs Students/Students with Disabilities/Different Learners

Common online learning tools are not a one-size-fits-all solution to learning, and students with disabilities may encounter difficulties with learning from home. This is especially true for students who work with aides, or require special accommodations and services. Because of how the world of online school exists at most institutions, special needs students may struggle to get the online learning accommodations they need. Students and their parents should work together to reach out to the school, individual teachers and support staff, while also taking stock of ways they can create supportive learning environments at home.


Reaching out for Online Learning Accommodations

Your School

Contact your school’s disability services office and inquire about setting up accommodations in your remote learning environment. This department may offer specific accessibility to accommodate your particular disability, but if not, let them know what support you need to succeed in online learning. Collect all documentation that supports your diagnoses/disability for validation purposes.

If you have not registered a 504 Plan (which defines the supplemental materials or extra time you need for a class) or an IEP (Individualized Education Program, which defines the kind of personal support you need in the classroom) with your school before, now would be a good time to do so. This will allow your school to better acquire and implement accommodations you may need.

Your Teachers

Before the school year starts, review the course syllabus and ask your teachers about their expectations for the classroom. Let them know of your individual needs and ask if/how they plan to accommodate you.

For students with learning disabilities or audio processing disorders, ask your teacher if you can get access to class recordings and if you have the option to use external software such as voice recognition processing programs during online exams.

For students who feel comfortable communicating over video, set up regular virtual office hour appointments with your teachers to assess your progress in class. Also, use this time to raise any issues or ask any questions you may have.

Your Support Staff

Some students work closely with support staff while in school. These same staff could help a student transition to online learning. They will likely have an upper hand in acquiring accommodations and tech tools that can aid students with disabilities with online learning.

Determine if you will need outside academic or other assistance, such as tutoring, and whether or not your school offers those supplemental resources.

Accommodations Online and At Home

Tech Tools, Software and Apps

Accessibility can start at home thanks to a wide range of free and low-price virtual tools that transform online learning into a customized experience. Some students with disabilities will already be familiar with these tools, having used them in the physical classroom or for completing homework. This short list of tools, software and apps can help bridge the gap between online courses and a student’s individual needs.

Blind/Vision Impaired Students

  • Screen Readers: Screen readers are software and apps that turn written text on a webpage into either synthesized speech or braille for a braille display. Screen readers can be programmed to spell out words, search for a string of text on the screen and use the spell-checker in a word processor. The American Foundation for the Blind has a list of free and low-cost screen readers that students can download and use for any computer activity.
  • Magnifying Glass: Students with vision impairment can use a built-in magnifying glass app on their phone, tablet or computer. This app creates a virtual magnifying glass to zoom in on web pages and documents. You can typically find this tool in the Accessibility settings on a Mac or Ease of Access on a Windows device, as well as pressing Windows + Plus Sign on PC or Option + Command + Plus Sign on Mac.
  • Visual Accessibility Settings: Want to change the colors, size and contrast on your device? Computers, tablets and even browsers support custom colors, font style and size, cursor size and more that can increase the visibility of apps and web pages.

Deaf/deaf or Hard of Hearing Students

  • Closed Captioning within Zoom: While teacher’s responsibility to add captioning services to video platforms, students should know their options. Zoom supports live captioning by conference participant, automated captioning via a third-party tool linked to Zoom, and transcript creation from either live or automated captioning. For more information, read this article from Zoom’s support site.
  • Web Captioner: A DIY-style solution for creating audio captions on a laptop, Web Captioner is a free tool that listens with your microphone to create captioning. It works in Chrome, but can pick up audio from Zoom. For best results, raise the volume on your speakers and microphone.

Students with learning disabilities/differences/who have difficulty reading

  • Immersive Reader: Immersive Reader is a Microsoft plugin that works with the Office suite and is accessible to students with Office 365 Education accounts. This tool enlarges font and spacing, combines text with images and can read passages aloud. There is also an unofficial Chrome browser extension that brings these functions to webpages.
  • Reader View: Reader View is built-in to Mozilla Firefox as well as Safari for iOS, and can be downloaded to Chrome via a browser extension. Using Reader View, the styling and presentation of a webpage is removed and the body of content is brought front and center. You’ll be able to change the font and color of the background. Note that not all webpages are available in Reader View.
  • Audio books: Your school’s library or local library can connect you to a platform to download free audio books – including audio books of classics for English class or more recent releases for book reports. Try searching for your library on Overdrive – just remember to have your library card handy!

Students with light sensitivity/hypersensitivity to light

  • Night Mode: Modern operating systems on computers and mobile devices have a Night Light or Night Shift mode that reduces the amount and intensity of blue light from your computer display. Night modes can be engaged at any time or programmed to kick in during a certain part of the day. For students on older hardware without a built-in Night mode, try the free-to-use program Flux.
  • Computer Glasses: Tinted lenses or specially-treated blue light glasses are designed to cut down on screen glare and can protect sensitive eyes from bright computer screens. For students that need more light control than Night mode can provide, computer glasses can help.

Designing a Learning Environment

The key to focusing during online learning is creating a study space within the home. Establish a study space away from distractions and loud noises where you can focus and be prepared for class. Stock your space with learning tools, stress-relief toys, healthy snacks and other tools you use during the typical school day. If you have a hard time hearing your online lectures or are getting distracted by noises around the house, invest in a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that can block out ambient sound.

Sitting at a screen can be tiring for many students, especially those with disabilities who may struggle with posture and motor skills. Prolonged screen time can result in sore wrists, back and/or neck, as well as eye strain and headaches. To make a study space more comfortable, invest in ergonomic pads for the keyboard and mouse, try using small pillows or soft inflatable balls to cushion chairs and help with seated posture, and use a computer or office chair that allows you to adjust its height and tilt.

Time-Management Solutions

For students whose minds tend to wander or who rely on the typical school day schedule to stay focused, it can be difficult to adjust to virtual school. That’s why time management is such an important element for success for some students. Create a schedule that incorporates classes, breaks, meals, sleep, study hours and other times for self-care. Mark down assignments, projects, tests and other academic tasks on your calendar, and check them off when they’ve been completed. Work ahead and early to ensure you meet your deadlines.

For students that thrive on routine, try following a daily schedule much like you were going to school in-person. Wake up and eat breakfast before classes, each lunch around the same time each day and set aside time after school to work on homework.


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Last Reviewed: October 2021